Pasonatech Shinenkai: Augmented Reality

I went to a benkyokai, or “study party,” a few weeks ago at Pasonatech in Shibuya, but forgot to write about it. I got invited by a guy I met at the Yahoo! Japan year-end party- the form was basically laid out as “someone does a presentation about something cool, and then we talk about it, and then we shmooze and drink.”

The party delivered on all counts. The presentation was about Augmented Reality, or AR, the idea of using information technology to turn life into a techno videogame, or more specifically, using location-and-context-aware network tech to capture, process, and return information in a way that makes life easier, more convenient, or just plain cooler.

Services like BrightKite, Fire Eagle, and Omnifocus have already started to make use of location-aware devices to connect with nearby contacts, remind users of convenient errands, and filter search results for local businesses, but our group sees this functionality extended beyond location-awareness to services conscious of what the user is doing at the moment, and using that awareness to make life easier for themselves and others.

There are already several AR services running at the moment:

-Microblogs (twitter, Jaiku) let users send updates or ask questions in an easy, fast way, from any mobile device you can think of.

-Brightkite and Fire Eagle take GPS data from capable devices and use it to broadcast user locations, either to other users, services like twitter, or dynamic maps.

-Location-aware search portals like Yelp! let you filter queries by what’s nearby to your current location.

-Life-organizers like Omnifocus and Evernote allow you to capture information through pictures, text, and audio notes, as well as let you know what errands or tasks can be done in your current location

Where is AR going (or where do we hope it’s going) ?

-Open architecture, open source: the more open standards involved, the easier it will be to get information flowing between services that capture it from the world around the user, and services that return it to people that can make use of it.

-Easy customization and user scripting. Greasemonkey is an awesome little plugin for firefox that lets you customize and script all sorts of things on your favorite sites, doing everything from reskinning your homepage to adding buttons to Gmail. Imagine that functionality on all the devices you have, independent of your particular web interface.

-There have been lifebloggers for awhile, but I still find them a novelty more than anything else. Yes, it’s nifty to record yourself 24 hours a day, but most of most people’s days are damned boring. Context-aware services offer the potential to sort the crap from the interesting from the useful, aggregate it, and send it to people that care. Videos and recordings of car accidents, street performers, standup comedy, academic lectures, and high-quality conversations should all go different places, for different audiences.

The main presenters at the event were Geisha Tokyo. This firm began as a Tokyo University startup, and now produces a freaky piece of AR otakuness called Cyber Figure Alice (日本語). The below video explains the concept better than words:

Isn’t that ridiculous?

-The CEO of the company demoed Alice live to us; the only equipment required is a computer with a webcam, the cube, and the software.

-As you probably guessed, the software is trained to recognize the odd black and white shapes on the cube, paddle, and cards. They’re designed so that the angles or combinations are easy to discern regardless of the cube’s position or distance.

-Consensus at the meeting was that the production wasn’t actually that different from an Engineering perspective, but until they came up with Alice, there wasn’t really a commercial outlet for the technology at its current stage. I would imagine that we’ll see this used for gaming and videoconferencing in the future; what immediately comes to mind for me are board/roleplaying games with the reach of the Internet but the tangibility of a physical board.

This is probably the only English write-up of the benkyoukai, but if you read Japanese, this is a good post by the guy that invited me,  Hirashima-san from Pasonatech.

One last note:

I think I’ve come up with a pretty good taxonomy of Japanese vs. American web firm dress codes, at least as far as Six Apart is concerned:

Sales/ExecButton-down striped shirt, designer jeans, iPhone, Lenovo T61.Suit and tie (or at least button-up and trousers), Sharp cell phone, tiny Sony Vaio laptop.
Programmer/EngineerOpen-source software T-shirt, regular jeans, iPhone, 15″ Macbook Pro.T-shirt, sweater/sweatshirt, designer jeans, iPhone, Ricoh camera. 50/50 netbook or mac.